Jo Walton’s Necessity trilogy continues to delight me. The Philosopher Kings is book two in the series, and it starts twenty years after the final debate in The Just City, the one in which Athene, angry because she lost the argument and her Just City – based on Plato’s Republic – breaks up the experiment because the Republic was not working out as she imagined.
- Walton’s fiction experiments in interesting ways with all kinds of big ideas, and the factions that result from the end of the last debate (and Athene’s taking of all but two of the Workers with her) provide a glimpse at the drive to set forth and find lands of our own that motivated the continuous development of colonies that was ancient Greece.
- This set of colonies is imbued (burdened?) with the foreknowledge of what is to come, since in the original plan Athene simply plucked anyone who had thought of her out of their current time and plopped them as a Master in the Just City.
- Her portrayal of the gods is fascinating – she fully invests in the ancient Greek idea that gods have immense powers and yet are more fully realized humans. They can be capricious, loving, horrible, intensely empathetic, and a bunch more, and seeing how those characteristics play out in the mundane world is pretty cool.
- The consequences of time travel come into play here as well. The inhabitants do not want to destroy what is come because of what they know, and this concept gets really confusing with the advent of Christianity, since Christians still want to be saved and go to heaven.
- Walton does not give up what Hades is actually like in this configuration…no cheating I guess…
- There is far less dialogue in here, and a lot more action (of the traditional variety – I think dialogue is action, but I’m a nerd). I missed the dialogue, but I also miss Simmea.
- Oddly enough, she inhabits nearly the entire novel through Apollo’s love for her.
- As the inhabitants of the Just City leave to form new colonies, they come back for one thing – art. The potency and power of art in this type of city (which Walton sets up in direct contrast to Plato’s oft-expressed concerns about art’s power to invoke emotion in people) drives people to war.
- Some would say that anything drives people to war…
- I am really curious what the next novel will do with the notions of citizenship that Walton is just starting to explore at the end of this novel. In my reading of The Republic determining who is a citizen (and the whys and hows) causes a bunch of problems.
- I am also wondering about economics and material necessity. This series intensely examines what we think of when we think of the soul, and it gives us some looks at the material conditions that people face. As the material reality of the next landscape manifests itself perhaps we will see more of the economics of The Republic (esp. since Walton has effectively eliminated both slaves and Workers/robots).
On to Book Three…
I recently read Newitz’s Autonomy, and I wondered how she could so accurately describe the paths that our technological development might follow. Having read Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans will Survive a Mass Extinction, I now understand, because as a science writer and editor of io9, she has been in this conversation for a long time and knows a lot about scientific trends. She extrapolated some fascinating ideas based on that knowledge…
More thoughts below:
- Newitz’s approach is far different from most who write about our future destruction – she thinks humans, as agile, problem-solving, incredibly smart creatures, should survive. She does not ignore the problems we cause – she links us to cyanobacteria as the only organisms to negatively impact the planet enough to bring about a mass extinction – but she thinks that ultimately we are worthy of moving onto the next step in our development.
- As if any of this is linear, of course…
- In the book she charts both mass extinctions from the planet’s geological history *and* stories of how humans have scattered, adapted, and remembered, and thus survived.
- Her description of the ways that Jews have survived is particularly interesting, as she talks about the importance of culture, narrative, and story.
- Her view is remarkably non-anthropocentric – by positing humans in what she argues (with help from a bunch of scientists) is the beginning of the next large mass extinction, she identifies our place in the universe as a little smaller and more fitting than how we ordinarily think of ourselves.
- The last section of the book is probably too short, but it was fascinating as she discussed how humans will probably adapt (breathe methane, have skin that can survive acid rains on other planets, and so on) and the immediate technological developments we will pursue (algae-derived energy, space elevators, and so on).
- She doesn’t simply talk about all this from her own “research” as that is defined now – glorified Google searches. Instead, she shows us what powerful science writing is by incorporating interviews (that she’s done) and research from the scientific communities involved in this discussion – disaster preparation as well as well energy derivation and space exploration.
- As someone who occasionally thinks that maybe a meteor strike wouldn’t be a bad idea, I appreciate her rational, pragmatic, and organized look at ways that we might actually survive (and heavens forbid learn from) the coming destruction we are doing to the planet…
Homesick for Another World is a collection of Otessa Moshfegh’s short stories, and it works differently than her novels. Novels reward those who are patient, both writers and readers, the observer who identifies details and winnows important observations from those that do not contribute to the text’s mission. Short stories tend to be far more of an exercise in immediate gratification. In particular, short story characters can tend to be more outrageous since there is no time to develop them.
- Moshfegh does not cotton to this strategy – even in this format her characters don’t reveal much of themselves, and only sometimes.
- This approach makes them even less sympathetic in some ways, and forced me as a reader to do some work. Rather than pile characters into those categories that I often resort to – I like them, I don’t like them, I like them sometimes – I had to look more carefully at the brutalizations that they both inflicted and endured.
- I also had to look at the validity of my own reactions – is this a way to read fiction, as a judgment on characters? I try not to do that even in real life, so my guess is no…
- Her approach to these characters also meant that the narrative voice often felt arrogant in ways that I did not feel comfortable with. That discomfort is good – arrogance among the brutally unaware is a feature not a bug, I think…
- I also found myself reading for redemption, which I would argue is a common way for audiences in the US in particular to read. We want happy endings, and if the character is not a good person we want them to at least admit that they are indeed not a good person.
- This does not happen in Moshfegh’s work.
- So, are these arrogant, irredeemable characters worth reading about? Yes, absolutely, although I am struggling with the why. There are probably two reasons that are compelling…
- From a metafictional perspective, this type of character (and they run a wide range of genders) works to subvert what we expect in fiction, and Moshfegh offers a much wider variety than say Bukowski, whose characters all seem to be some version of himself.
- Character portraits of folks who are not historically evil but simply not very aware of the damage that they do are way harder to pull off and damaging to the general lack of self-consciousness and intentionality that we often think of as a critical element in fiction.
- We all want to be Emma, in some ways, capable of both growth and recognizing the need to grow. There are no Emmas in what Moshfegh is doing…
- Finally, the last three stories in this collection (yes, I’m a rules-follower and read them in order) were different – nostalgic in the title of the collection sense, rife with a sense of alienation that in my mind helps to establish the narrator’s credibility as a reliable source of all these types of personalities. Moshfegh’s ability to write in so many voices is uncanny, and kept me wondering what the hell was coming next…
- In that sense, this collection fits snugly with Eileen, a novel in which I kept waiting for the character to do something horrible, a tension that is never paid off directly but instead contributes to the general sense of daily horror that comes from this sense of having no reason to keep going forward (and yet we keep going forward anyway).
The Shape of Water burst on the scene shortly before the re-issue of Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, but Ingalls beat del Toro to the story by 35 years as this novel features a housewife in a marriage that seems stagnant who falls for a sensitive male of another species. Water is definitely involved.
- Making the protagonist Mrs. Caliban is just one of the many brilliant moves in this novel. Ingalls calls attention directly to gender roles and expectations with the title, and by positioning the canon’s wimpiest monster opposite Larry (the monster in this novel) being someone who can kill – he does so out of self-defense, and does so brutally – reverses Prospero’s cultural dominance in favor of a monster who actually becomes the sort of ideal partner that Dorothy wishes she had.
- While Prospero tames Caliban, demonstrating masculine and English superiority over all types of Others, Dorothy falls in love in an almost traditional way with her monster. Their relationship is not one of master-servant (a trope for marriage that seems to fall apart while we watch among Dorothy’s social circle) but rather a contemporary good marriage, with a true partnership between equals rather than a series of passive-aggressive territory contests of the sort that middle class marriages degenerate into in the world of this novel.
- Larry seems more perplexed by the insanity of Dorothy’s world than she does by his. Of course we get to see her world and not his, but the ever-shifting alliances of marriages in Dorothy’s circle are hard to fathom, and become almost labyrinth-like. There simply are no good marriages, as men cheat, women cheat, and the ideal of the American household falls completely apart.
- The larger context that Ingalls works from is suburbia, and her portrayal of it makes middle-class citizens of the USA seem more savage than poor Larry…
- And by the way, this novel contains inter-species sex…don’t say you weren’t warned.
I’ve stumbled onto Lucia Berlin’s fiction late, and I read these in the wrong order, but I’m glad I did. Evening in Paradise is a collection of short stories that made me go ‘whoa’ multiple times. Thoughts below:
- The title story is emblematic of Berlin’s prose, in my mind, as it describes a few years in a family headed by a long-suffering partner and a recovering addict. They live in a paradisaical fishing village off the coast of Mexico, one that feels both timeless and rooted in contemporaneity.
- When a former dealer finds them, the addict falls back into using, and even when the dealer ODs and the partner essentially buries him at sea the story ends with a sense that the devil is right around the corner.
- This sort of ending is typical of Berlin’s prose – at the end of several of these stories she leaves us feeling like, yay, everything will work out, and then with one huge narrative stroke she undermines what we think will be the ending.
- These stories are semi-auto-biographical, I guess, although Berlin has said that she is far more interested in them feeling real than being true. I understand that that’s a fairly common writerly caveat, but based on the craziness of Berlin’s life that stretch can go a lot farther, I’m guessing…
- I often struggle with how to characterize what I think Berlin fictionalizes incredibly well – the moment of what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism,” when you realize that your optimistic, perhaps naive view of the ways that you can overcome trauma fail you, and you have to figure out what to do, often returning to well-worn and not necessarily helpful behaviors. There as many responses as there are people of course – for me I always feel unable to focus visually when my views of the world collide – and I think these stories describe a huge chunk of them.
- They are so full of these moments that I often read while holding my breath, and even if the characters plow through marks are left.
- This novel is social realism at its finest, perhaps because so much of it coincides with the author’s lived experience.
Michiko Kakutani has been a harbinger of good literature for a long time, and The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump gives her a chance to connect the ways in which traditional notions of argument have failed in the digital age. More thoughts below:
- The argument she traces convincingly in this book is the idea that Trump is the best player in this game, not a paradigm-breaker himself. Trump gets mentioned in her subtitle, but she’s more concerned about the ways that our notions of truth have changed, not how Trump himself uses them. The fact that he’s not desperately trying to stay out of jail as a failed grifter is a symptom of the age, not a sign that he’s, uh, got talent.
- She uses her amazing knowledge of literature and philosophy to trace the evolution of the distrust of being able to make objective statements about truth to the rise of Trump. She clearly hates Trump and what he’s done to discourse in the U.S., but she sees the long dark night of the soul that we face in this country (and in social media-saturated platforms) and describes it clearly and devastatingly.
- For instance, some of her most powerful critiques are not directed at the Breitbarts of the world but instead at leftists who jumped fully on board the postmodern train and contributed to what she sees as the source of much of the destruction of our ability to come to any conclusions about what is true in any specific situation.
- In some ways she’s almost too good of a writer – I had to willfully slow myself down as I read the book, because her prose is achingly beautiful at times.
- It made me think about my own relationship with the postmodernists. I think I was lucky – I came to them after their heyday, and as someone a bit older with a bit more experience of the world. While some of their methodologies were enormously useful – Foucault’s identification of power, Derrida’s Swiss Army knife tool of deconstruction, Spivak’s look at the subaltern, and Said’s look at the creation of oppressive tropes of representation in both high and low art are some that I found productive – in general the falling off the cliff that folks like Lyotard promoted made me queasy.
- The lived experience they spoke from seemed pretty ungrounded from the reality that I saw, and seemed to pretend that material conditions could be somehow transcended.
- That said, I think one of the most interesting dances in this is watching Kakutani’s sense of fair play at work. She is, after all, the critic who wrote one of the funniest and spot-on critiques of Norman Mailer’s stupifyingly binary oeuvre I’ve ever read, one in which she accurately depicts the enormity of the high art ego, and yet she highly values the cultural impact of social realism and high art in its novelistic form. The search for objective truth usually privileges canonical texts, and can thus miss places where resistance to entrenched power occurs if those places are located outside the canon.
- She tries to acknowledge these lines, but it’s a tricky walk to make.
I started to subscribe to Benedict Evan’s newsletter a couple of months ago, and it never fails to identify an interesting article or two. The most recent issue highlighted this article from Bloomsburg Business News, and reading it prompted two quick thoughts:
- The Chinese are so concerned about global warming and the damage it’s doing that they are taking some pretty drastic steps, including banning all fossil fuel-powered cars by what looks like 2040 (they haven’t said exactly when yet).
BYD Electric Vehicle at a car show in China
- While the American tech market is driven by big personalities and the alpha male culture that we seem to believe drives business success, this company – BYD – dwarfs the production of other electronic vehicle producers.
- They have done this by concentrating less on the whims of a charismatic owner (*cough*, some guy whose first name rhymes with “belon” and whose last name is most often associated with deer, *cough*) and more on what needs to be done.
- They have also made huge government investments in these countries. I’m not going to pretend to understand the way that investment works in a mixed economy like China, but after the uproar about “bailing out” American car companies and I can’t imagine that Americans will suddenly think that having governments invest in private companies is a good idea.
- Doing R and D through universities is something else, but even that is a tough sell for a lot of folks…
Maybe we will figure it out anyway?